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UP, BNSF and NS suspend COVID-19 vaccine mandates

Ruling puts vaccine mandate for federal contractors on hold amid numerous lawsuits

BNSF and Union Pacific are putting their vaccine mandates on hold following a federal court decision on Tuesday. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Updated with comment from Norfolk Southern

Union Pacific, BNSF and Norfolk Southern are putting on hold requirements that all of their employees be vaccinated against COVID-19. 

The railroads had sought to issue companywide mandates because they are federal contractors and as a result, they needed to comply with a September presidential executive order requiring federal employees and contractors to be vaccinated. 

But a Tuesday decision by Judge R. Stan Baker with the U.S. District Court in Georgia called for a stay of the vaccine mandate for federal contractors. His decision — an injunction in a lawsuit involving the construction trade association Associated Builders and Contractors — puts the mandate’s implementation on hold for all federal contractors until legal challenges work themselves through the court process.

UP (NYSE: UNP), BNSF (NYSE: BRK.B) and NS (NYSE: NSC) have been embroiled in lawsuits with railroad unions over the implementation of companywide vaccine mandates. The railroads have contended they are following the executive order, but the unions argue that any vaccine mandate must be negotiated, especially as the freight railroads and the unions are undergoing talks for a new collective bargaining agreement.

In response to the Tuesday federal court ruling, BNSF said: “With this ruling impacting all BNSF locations — and considering BNSF’s stance remains that the decision to be vaccinated is a personal one — we cannot continue the current path without more certainty about the timing and enforcement of the federal contractor mandate.”

BNSF said it paused its implementation of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate effective Tuesday. 

“If employees haven’t acted yet to comply with the federal mandate, they are not obligated to do so at this time,” BNSF said. “However, while the ruling by the District Court in Georgia granted a preliminary injunction, the ultimate outcome of the federal contractor vaccine mandate is yet to be determined. It is still possible that the mandate, as it applies to BNSF, could be upheld in court in the near future.”

UP said it was “still encouraging employees to report their vaccination status and get vaccinated.”

“Given this ruling, Union Pacific is complying with the temporary suspension of the federal contractor vaccine mandate,” it said, adding that as of Wednesday, 73% of employees were fully vaccinated and “another 7% are in progress.”

Meanwhile, NS issued this statement: “From the start of the pandemic, we have put the health and safety of our people at the center of our decision-making and have encouraged them to follow the guidance of public health experts. We also have worked to comply with all legal requirements, including the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for covered federal contractors.

“While a recent court ruling in Georgia temporarily suspended the mandate nationwide, we are still encouraging our employees to get vaccinated. However, pending resolution of legal challenges to the mandate, Norfolk Southern will not pursue disciplinary action against employees at this time who do not comply with the government’s deadline to be vaccinated or request an accommodation.”

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  1. John Doe

    I work for UP and it seems like the percentage of employees vaccinated is incorrect as reported here. 73% is the percentage of employees that have reported to UP their vaccination status. That doesn’t represent the percentage of employees that are vaccinated. Yet again, UP is misrepresenting the data.

    1. Bill Freeto

      John Doe: Please note that none of the railroads, including UP, were even subject to the Excecutive Order according to its own language (irrespective of its unconstitutionality). Please read the EO and the Guidance and you’ll see why, and then share the information with all of your colleagues.

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.